Open-air baths do not come more impressive than this. Nestled at the mouth of the Zao national park, the largest of the steaming pools of purifying waters at the Zao Onsen is big enough to hold 200 people. The highlight of the rustic dai rotem buro, a trio of bubbling outdoor pools, is a massive tub built into a ravine with spectacular views of the forest-covered mountains.
Discovered as far back as 110 c.e., the Zao hot springs are the oldest of the three great hot springs of Japan’s northeast Tohoku region. According to local legend, a wounded warrior drew an arrow from his body and cleaned the wound at a spring. The injury recovered miraculously, and the healing properties of the waters became famous. The high acidity of the milky white waters, which maintain a constant temperature of nearly 125°F (52°C), is still regarded as a cure for skin conditions and gastrointestinal disorders.
The village has managed to maintain its traditional charm and an almost Zen-like sense of calm. After a soak in the springs, wander through the lantern-filled streets lined with rickety ryokan inns. A bus ride away from Yamagata bullet train station, Zao Onsen is as popular with skiers as with hot spring lovers. When snow falls, it is transformed into a winter wonderland with spectacular ice-covered trees, better known as “snow monsters.” One of the oldest ski resorts in Japan, the mountain at Zao Onsen reaches an altitude of more than 4,000 feet (1,220 m). For the brave, the Wall is a 1,000-foot (305-m) run with a 30-degree slope. For a more laid-back alternative, lights illuminate the piste for romantic night skiing.